Soccer

Nabil Fekir: ‘I was a kid in Lyon who only thought about having fun on the pitch’


Nabil Fekir strolls through the door wearing shorts and sliders and settles into a chair, tucking Europe’s most punished limbs under the table. Look for a footballer who gets kicked like him and there isn’t one anywhere. Of all the players in La Liga, all the players in all the continent’s five major leagues in fact, he suffered the most fouls last season. Yet you cannot help wondering if he almost prefers it that way, and there’s no complaint, no plea for protection, not today. Instead there’s just a smile. “No pasa nada,” he says: no worries.

Well, not none exactly. “Sometimes it’s hard to stay calm, although it’s part of your job,” he concedes, four red cards since joining Real Betis in 2019 underline that it is not always easy, and his coach, Manuel Pellegrini, has raised the voice, admitting he has encouraged Fekir to release the ball earlier “because if not, of every 10 moves he’s going to get whacked in eight”. But, Pellegrini says, “he has a certain style: he likes to play and enjoys the contact”. As for the Frenchman, he always comes back for more. “It’s my game. I dribble. I need the ball. So I get fouled a lot. No problem.”

Nabil Fekir is fouled
Fekir was fouled more than any player in Europe’s top five leagues. Photograph: Joaquin Corchero/Shutterstock

You cannot change that and would not want to, the fouling partly a product of more enjoyable metrics. There is a reason why he is given a certain freedom. He has scored or assisted 50 goals since joining Betis, in double figures for both last season, a season in which only three players in Europe gave more “pre-assists”. In La Liga, only Iker Muniain made more chances and only Rubén García completed more passes into the area. Across all competitions, no midfielder in Europe attempted or completed more dribbles.

There was more. A first Copa del Rey win for Betis in 17 years, only their fourth trophy ever – “a wonderful night” – and a goal direct from a corner against Sevilla, entirely deliberate but taken from him when the match was abandoned. “He has personality; he’s a simple guy who doesn’t go about with the fantasy of being the star. He listens and improves,” Pellegrini said as Betis prepared for that final. “And the thing is, playing comes so easily to him. He’s a pleasure to coach and I don’t understand why he’s not at a really huge club because he certainly deserves it.”

It was a line that demanded an obvious question and, in turn, an equally obvious response, Pellegrini cracking up. Do you tell him that? Do you say you should be at Barcelona or Bayern or City or somewhere? “No, because I don’t want him to leave Betis.”

Nor does anyone else. There is something about Fekir that is different but fits with the philosophy of a club that embraces enjoyment, one of La Liga’s great attractions as a new season begins. With him football is more fun, that’s for sure. But what about for him? This can be a suffocatingly serious business, after all. A painful one too, he knows. “Fun? Yes, yes, always,” he says softly, unhurried, which is how he says most things. “There’s pressure, it can depend on the moments, but if you don’t enjoy it …”

Nabil Fekir with the Copa del Rey
Fekir helped Real Betis win the Copa del Rey for only the club’s fourth trophy. Photograph: Ángel Martínez/Getty Images

There is a pause. Fekir sits on a terrace outside St George’s Park, where Betis are completing pre-season preparation the morning after a win over their fellow residents Marseille in Chesterfield of all places, a “friendly” that ended with a 20-man pile-in. “Look, I don’t need to play,” he continues. “For me it’s a game, a pleasure, and I hope to continue this way. I play like I did as a kid. The only thing that changes is experience: I’m 29, I’m not going to play exactly like at 19. I run with my head, but in essence I haven’t changed.”

Two of Fekir’s brothers play amateur football while Yassin, four years his junior, is in the Betis B team. “I think he’s very good, eh!” he says. “I don’t know if I’m objective but he’s very good. He’s like me, but right footed. My dad worked in a metal factory. My mum worked in a nursery, looking after kids. They always said to work hard at school. All that was in my head was football. And, thank God, I got there.”

If you hadn’t? “I don’t know. There was only one thought: be a footballer. And after I retire, I honestly don’t know what I will do. I can’t see myself as a coach, but players always say that and then they get there … it’s because we really like football. We’ve spent our whole lives in football and then we don’t know what to do. I don’t know if I’ll still be playing at 41, like Joaquín but I’d like to. We all would. For now, I play: but the day will come.

“I was a humble kid in Lyon who only thought about having fun on the pitch with my friends. I wanted to win but without asking questions or wondering what would become of me. We played in the neighbourhood – and I think that’s why I have a game that’s ‘street’.”

It is a profile that is being lost. “Yeah, could be,” Fekir says. “When you go to an academy, there’s a lot of structure. I played more in local teams where coaches let you do what you want; that gives you a freedom which has been important to me.”

Nabil Fekir playing for Lyon in 2018.
Fekir initially joined the academy of Lyon at the age of 12. Photograph: Emmanuel Foudrot/Reuters

Fekir did join the academy at Lyon aged 12 – “It was very hard at first” – but left again two years later. “I don’t remember why, there wasn’t a specific reason. And four years later they rang again.” What had changed? “I don’t know. Maybe they realised they made a mistake. I left, went to local teams. It’s all good. I wasn’t angry, because I love football. It didn’t matter if it was Lyon or some other club; I just wanted to play. I went to a neighbourhood club and enjoyed it a lot.”

Fekir would end up as captain of a talented emerging Lyon team – Memphis Depay, Samuel Umtiti, Anthony Martial – and a call came from France’s senior setup the very same international break in which he had first been chosen for the Algeria squad. “That was very hard for me,” he says. “My dad arrived in France the year before I was born; my mum is Algerian but had been there longer. Every year or so I would go to Algeria. I feel French and Algerian.”

Are there people who don’t understand that? Who are a bit … Fekir completes the question: “… closed? Yes. Yes. And that does complicate things. Some people don’t understand that you can have dual nationality, can love two countries at once, you know? It was difficult for me. I was young. A lot of people saying France, a lot saying Algeria. Eventually I chose France but those were very, very hard moments. That’s life. I don’t regret anything I did.”

The first person Fekir told was his father. “He didn’t want it. That’s normal. I understand that perfectly. He has all his family there, he grew up there. His whole life there. It hurt him a bit when I chose France. But that’s life: there are decisions, and that was mine. I take responsibility.”

And now you are a world champion.

There’s a smile. “Not bad.”

Nabil Fekir celebrates winning the World Cup with his France teammates in 2018
Nabil Fekir celebrates winning the World Cup with his France teammates in 2018. Photograph: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

“Faith is important to me: everything is in God’s hands so I don’t worry,” Fekir says. About anything? “Anything.” Including the move to Liverpool that fell through in the summer of 2018. The suggestion was that Fekir had failed a medical because of a knee problem, but he says that is wrong. He also rejects accusations from the agent Jean Pierre Bernès that it collapsed because of his family’s involvement.

“I had a problem with my agent, that’s it. Very simple. Things were not clear, you know. Between him and me. I don’t want to go into details but it was a problem between my agent and I. People then said it was my knee or I-don’t-know-what but that’s just an excuse. I know what really happened.”

Another smile. “He’s no longer my agent.”

“I believe in destiny, you know. If I didn’t sign for Liverpool, it’s because Betis were here waiting for me. It’s a lovely city, with that Arabic spirit, a special club. It’s life. I don’t regret anything. I don’t think about the future much. I just live every day and try to enjoy it, play.” Even if they do kick him all the way.



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